North couple finds way to restore wetlands naturally and economically

Sherry Hamilton - Posted on Aug 18, 2010 - 03:38 PM

People who own waterfront property often have to deal with the loss of their property to shoreline erosion, and it can cost big bucks to reinforce scarped and eroded shorelines with rock or bulkheads or offshore breakwaters.

John and Tina McCloud of North, chose to preserve their shoreline the natural way and, in doing so, they’ve not only restored a lush stand of wetland grasses but also have saved themselves a bit of money.

Long-time residents of a small subdivision on the North River, the McClouds several years ago purchased 10 acres of woodland adjacent to their home site. The shoreline of the parcel juts out into the little cove that the McClouds share with several other property owners, and it’s directly opposite the opening into the cove off the North River.

Photo: John and Tina McCloud launched a wetlands restoration project two years ago, placing coir logs along the shoreline of their Little Cove property off the North River. Now, what was once a mud flat contains a lush stand of wetlands, and runoff from the upland has decreased significantly. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

John and Tina McCloud launched a wetlands restoration project two years ago, placing coir logs along the shoreline of their Little Cove property off the North River. Now, what was once a mud flat contains a lush stand of wetlands, and runoff from the upland has decreased significantly. Photo by Sherry Hamilton

Wind from the long fetch in front of the shoreline creates wave action along the shore in spite of a vegetated sandbar about 200 feet away. That wave action, coupled with runoff from the clear-cutting of a large adjacent parcel, had eroded the bank, causing the loss of one tree and threatening other mixed pine and hardwood trees. In addition, low tide exposed a wide expanse of mud flat along the shore.

With a degree in agricultural education from Virginia Tech, John McCloud spent three years in agricultural research before going to work for Borden Chemical Company as an advisor to people in charge of athletic fields, golf courses, and parks. He has also worked as a golf course maintenance consultant, and he ran his own erosion control business, specializing in water runoff.

But even with those credentials, McCloud didn’t make any decisions about the way to handle his erosion problem until he had talked with all the experts and officials involved. He invited representatives from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and the Mathews Wetlands Board to his house and asked them to look at the erosion and tell him the best way to handle the problem in the most environmentally-friendly way.

The McClouds told the officials they didn’t want to use rock revetment to harden the shoreline artificially, except for a nine-foot expanse under their existing dock. Installing rock all along the bank would have required grading to create a slope, and trees along the shoreline would have been cut down.

"We’re trying to blend in with nature," Mrs. McCloud said. "Other people have bulkheads or hard shore, but we didn’t want that."

Instead, McCloud had the idea he wanted to use coir logs—interwoven coconut fiber bound together with biodegradable netting—to stabilize the bank and slow down the wave action on the grasses, then backfill the area with sand and plant marsh grasses that would flourish in that location.

"I came up with an idea about erosion undercut along the shore," he said. "I said ‘why don’t we tuck something under that instead of cutting back.’"

The project was approved and completed two years ago, and the grasses have, indeed, begun to flourish. What was once a mud flat is now filled with tall, green, healthy grasses. McCloud said he’s achieved about 80-85 percent coverage.

Throughout the project, McCloud followed the advice of the authorities and did everything he was asked. In turn, he found the authorities willing to allow him to experiment to see what worked.

Performing all the work himself with the help of one young man, McCloud installed coir logs along a line delineated by VIMS personnel, staking them so they wouldn’t wash away. He purchased three types of sand and found that, as long as it contained no more than 10 percent clay, as advised, all three types worked just fine. He planted tiny plugs of smooth cordgrass from mid-tide seaward, saltmeadow grass above the tide line, and switchgrass and salt bush in the upland. He keeps overhanging branches pruned so the sun can get to the grass beds, and finds that it makes a real difference.

"You’ve got to let the sunlight in," he said. "That’s the key."

When runoff proved to be a threat to the project, McCloud asked for permission to use oyster shells onshore in the area of the dock, and when wave action started undercutting the coir logs, he got permission to place oyster shells there as well. Loose oyster shells just washed away, so he asked permission to put them in mesh bags, and the wetlands board and other authorities again agreed.

Even though he’s been told he can dig up existing grasses to fill in areas where his plantings haven’t taken, McCloud instead buys new plugs because he doesn’t want to take a chance on threatening a successful stand of grass. In March and April, he goes along the shoreline and removes dead grass, debris and detritus from the planting to keep it healthy.

McCloud said he has reduced runoff significantly, estimating it’s dropped from maybe 70-80 percent to perhaps 10 percent. In addition, the project cost him only about a fifth to a quarter as much as installing rock.

Strolling along his dock and looking down at the full, fresh stand of sea grasses with tiny snails clinging to their stems, McCloud marveled at the change from two years ago.

"It was completely bare," he said. "There was nothing here."

During a presentation about the project before the wetlands board last week, McCloud said he hopes the grass beds will become so established that they’re self-sustaining.

His wife agreed, saying, "It’s so much nicer, really, than rock."